I’ve had several days now to absorb the Toronto Maple Leafs’ decision to not only retain Randy Carlyle as head coach, but also give him a two-year contract extension (the second year a club option). Like many observers, I was surprised by this move, fully expecting he would be fired. Since the announcement, I’ve tried to understand the rationale behind it.
Last season was Carlyle’s first full one as Leafs head coach. He came in late in the 2011-12 campaign after then-GM Brian Burke compared their late-season collapse to an 18-wheeler going over a cliff. Last season was cut in half by a lockout, but the Leafs made the playoffs for the first time in seven years, coming within one period of eliminating the Boston Bruins in the first round before suffering a heartbreaking collapse.
It’s tempting to use that series as an analogy for the Leafs performance this season. Entering March they were comfortably perched in a playoff berth, only to collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs.
Carlyle had his critics entering this season, particularly among followers of hockey analytics, who believed the Leafs poor puck-possession numbers in the shortened 2012-13 season were an indication they would struggle to make the 2014 playoffs. While mocked by some in the mainstream media, especially when the Leafs jumped out to a hot start in October, the “advanced stats crowd” would be vindicated by the club’s eventual collapse.
Even if you don’t believe advanced stats, traditional ones like shots-against per game tell the same story. In 2012-13, the Leafs were 17th in goals-against per game, but gave up the fourth-most shots-against per game. This season, they gave up the most shots-against per game, they also had the fifth-worst goals-against per game.
When the season ended, even most of the mainstream media believed Carlyle was a goner. The Leafs led the league in shots-against, owing their early-season success to hot goaltending and the offense generated by the Phil Kessel line. When they fell apart in March, Carlyle had no answers. He was also criticized for his handling of young Leafs Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and James Reimer.
Part of the Leafs failure this season rests with GM Dave Nonis, who failed to suitably address the club’s lack of secondary scoring and checking line depth. Part of it also rests with the players, some of whom seemed to quit on the season as their slump deepened down the stretch. Ultimately, most of the blames rests with the coaching staff.
The problem seemed to be that the Leafs aren’t built for a coach like Carlyle, who favors physical defensive hockey. By seasons end, he was struggling to understand the Leafs collapse. He was still trying to come to grips with it during the press teleconference announcing his return, repeatedly calling it “mind-boggling”.
That sort of thing doesn’t inspire confidence throughout Leafs Nation.
Carlyle’s supporters believe the Leafs made the right call retaining him and instead replacing the assistant coaches. After all, it’s the assistant coaches responsible for running the offensive and defensive games, especially the power play and penalty kill.
That’s letting the head coach off easy, making Carlyle seem like a figurehead done in by an incompetent staff. The assistants help the head coach implement his style. If Carlyle still doesn’t understand why his team fell apart, there’s little his assistants can do to help him improve the Leafs.
I can understand the factors behind the decision to retain Carlyle. There’s a new team president (Brendan Shanahan) who’s only been on the job less than a month. The Leafs under Carlyle were only one year removed from ending a lengthy playoff drought. This season was truly only his first full one behind the bench. Carlyle has a Stanley Cup title on his resume. The Leafs roster still needs adjustments, lacking skilled shutdown defenders, scoring and checking line depth. They want another full season to evaluate his coaching, and gave him an extension because they didn’t want him to be perceived as a lame-duck coach. They want the players to know they won’t escape from carrying their fair share of the blame. Besides, if the Leafs have a poor start, or fail to make the playoffs next season, he can still be fired. That contract extension? Who cares? The Leafs are hockey’s richest franchise and can easily absorb that cost.
Perhaps this gambit will work out. Maybe Carlyle and his new assistants can significantly improve the Leafs woeful puck-possession numbers, tighten up the defense and with the help of management finally have the secondary scoring and checking depth they’ve lacked the past two years.
But if it doesn’t, the Leafs – especially Shanahan – will have missed an opportunity for a coaching change at a time when several notable bench bosses (Barry Trotz, Kevin Dineen, John Stevens, Guy Boucher, Mike Haviland) are available or potentially so. It’ll be another season of watching yet another Leafs team struggling to adjust to a style they’re simply not suited for. Carlyle’s contract extension will seem, as The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau suggested, like rewarding failure.
It’s one thing to plead for patience, but when you’re talking about a team which has the NHL’s longest Stanley Cup drought (47 years and counting), which missed the playoffs eight of the past nine years, patience is a rare commodity among the Leafs faithful. They’re tired of mismanagement, weary of the late-season collapses and skeptical their current coach understands his team.
Shanahan was supposed to be the breath of fresh air at the top the Leafs needed. Retaining Carlyle seems like the same-old, same-old from an organization out of touch with reality.